Party PR; how NOT to improve our voting system
In any debate on reform of the voting system, you will hear people talk of "proportional representation" which is any voting system that awards seats to parties in proportion to the votes cast for them so that, say, if Labour won 4 out of 10 votes, they would be awarded 4 out of 10 seats. This seems logical and democratic but there are many such systems operating worldwide, and most of them are pre-occupied with proportionality for political parties, usually at the expense of independents, voter choice and representation of local communities. These systems can best be described as “Party PR”.
In Israel, for example, there is no local community representation at all; the entire state is one massive constituency of 120 seats which are shared out among a profusion of parties contesting the election in proportion to the votes cast for them nationally. Each party publishes a list of candidates in a pre-ordained pecking order, and the seats awarded to the party are doled out to the candidates on the list, starting at the top of the list and working down. At the last election in March 2021, any party polling over 3.25% of the national vote was awarded proportional representation, which explains why that election has resulted in an Israeli government comprising a coalition of 8 parties!
Nobody proposes using such a pure "Party PR" system here, although a version operated in the UK for elections to the European Parliament using UK regions, which is almost as bad. As in Israel, the UK regional party lists were pre-ordained or "closed"; you didn't get any say in the party's choice of candidates or where they were in the pecking order on the list. Some Party PR systems do allow voters to express a preference for a candidate on what is called an “open” list, but many voters don't use this option and in any case it is assumed that everybody will be happy for any candidate from their chosen list to be elected; words are put into voters' mouths; with Party PR, parties and politicians increase their power at the expense of the voters.
There is also a hybrid device known as the Additional Member System, which delivers Party PR while retaining single member constituencies, which Westminster politicians are seeking to preserve. It was imported from Germany by the last Labour Government as part of the devolution packages for Scotland, Wales and London. There are several variations but basically about half of a parliament elected by this method is filled by MPs elected by First-past-the-post in larger single member constituencies, with the remaining seats used to "top up" the parliament so that party strengths reflect votes cast for the parties in the election. These "additional members" are usually drawn from party lists. Additional Member systems are popular with establishment politicians but represent the worst of both worlds for voters; the dysfunctional single member constituency is retained; there would be two types of MP, one type directly elected trying to cope with the increased workload of a larger single-member constituency and another comprising the "top-up" additional members, party hacks with no direct constituency responsibility, whose first loyalty would be to the party who determined their place on the party list, free to swan around the corridors of power, furthering their own political careers.
End of the road for political parties?
As crude as First-past-the-post is, voters do at least retain total control; when they cast their votes, they know exactly who they are supporting and that their support will not be registered elsewhere. Moreover, First-past-the-post does not discriminate between parties or independents, nor does it require registered political parties to function.
Is this important? It might be. Perhaps political parties as we know them may be approaching extinction, having been no more than a passing phase in our political development, victorian museum pieces from the steam age of politics when simplistic Christmas hampers of policies were required for a badly educated population which had just been given the vote. After all, philosophies fuel political parties but the battles of the "isms" were decided a long time ago and today's British politics is now a fusion of philosophies, a liberal democracy with a social welfare programme resourced by a capitalist economy.
Perhaps we are on the cusp of an exciting new era in our politics; perhaps political parties as we know them are on their way out, to be replaced over time by blended politics or "football teams" of individuals which people vote for on the basis of their competence, vision, experience and costed programme, rather than just the colour of their ridiculous dinnerplate-sized rosettes. Perhaps the election of Emmanuel Macron in France in 2017 heralds the arrival of “pop-up” parties and fusion politics.
In any event, the last thing we want to be doing at this stage is to introduce a “Party-PR”
voting system which requires the continued existence of 20th century-era political parties, when a more sophisticated voting public was hoping to consign them to history.
So, how can the present voting system be reformed to better utilise wasted votes and yield a more representative result without losing its beneficial features, such as its constituency base, its neutrality and its ability to operate without political parties? Two components will transform the efficiency of our Victorian apparatus – the return of Multi Member Constituencies coupled with the introduction of Preference Voting, together known as the Single Transferable Vote or STV.